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Entries in Shin-Soo Choo (9)


Without Choo, Cincy's Outfield in Trouble

With Shin-Soo Choo departing Cincinnati to sign a seven-year, $130 million free agent deal in Texas, the Reds' outfield now features Jay Bruce and two guys who could be offensive black holes next season. Center fielder Billy Hamilton is a blur on the bases, but the slap-and-dash hitter will be lucky not to get the bat knocked out of his hands, much less come close to replacing Choo atop Cincy's lineup. Left fielder Ryan Ludwick, now in his mid-thirties, has to prove yet another career-threatening injury hasn't sapped his power. For a team still intent on battling the St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates for NL Central supremacy, the Reds have a lot riding on Hamilton's legs and Ludwick's mended shoulder in 2014.

Can Hamilton's wheels make up for all the outs?

In replacing Choo with Billy Hamilton, the Reds will unquestionably lose a ton of offensive value. The more interesting question is, can Hamilton's Ricky Henderson-on-Red Bull speed possibly compensate for his slack bat?

Hamilton had no trouble reaching base in 2012, walking in 14.2 percent of his plate appearances between High-A and Double-A. But he drew a free pass just 6.9 percent of the time at Triple-A last year, as more experienced pitchers attacked the 6-foot, 160 pound singles hitter in the strike zone. Hamilton might eventually learn how to work the count despite his limited power, a la Brett Gardner, but he figures to struggle at the plate in 2014. Two projection systems, Steamer and Oliver, peg Hamilton for an on-base-percentage slightly over .300 and an On-Base-Plus-Slugging-Percentage (OPS) more than 20 percent below the major league average. That kind of offensive futility would put pressure on Hamilton to create runs on the bases and save them in the field like few other fly catchers ever have.

Just 16 outfielders have managed to be at least an average starter (defined here as two Wins Above Replacement) during a season in which they posted a park-and-league-adjusted OPS (OPS+) that was 20 percent or more below the MLB average. To make that many outs and still provide value, these guys had to cover serious ground and create havoc when they did manage to get on base.


In the long run, these players seem to fall into three bins. A few improved dramatically with the bat, becoming stars (Kirby Puckett, Carlos Gomez, Willie Davis). Some used their speed to carve out lengthy careers despite remaining easy outs (Otis Nixon, Gary Pettis, Darren Lewis). Others suffered injuries, crashing and burning once their sole standout skill declined (Willy Taveras, Joey Gathright). Hamilton doesn't possess the latent power of a Pucket or Gomez, so his ceiling appears limited if he doesn't develop top-notch plate discipline.

Hamilton's wheels might just be special enough for him to join the list above. He's a top-tier base thief in terms of both quantity (he averaged 79 steals per season in the minors) and quality (an 82.5 percent success rate, plus a 13-for-14 cameo in the bigs). The converted shortstop is also a natural in center field. Even so, the Reds -- last in leadoff OBP in 2012, and first in 2013 -- could have one of the game's most prolific out-makers setting the table for Joey Votto and Bruce.

Can Ludwick shoulder the load in left field?

Ludwick's career has been defined by devastating injuries and improbable comebacks. The 35-year-old must bend the aging curve once again after a season in which he suffered a dislocated right shoulder and showed Hamiltonian power upon returning to action.

Ludwick's slugging percentage by pitch location, 2012


Ludwick's slugging percentage by pitch location, 2013

Ludwick wrecked his shoulder on Opening Day sliding head-first on the bases. After undergoing surgery and enduring four months of rehab, he lacked the punch that allowed him to pop 26 home runs and post an OPS that was 30 percent above average the previous season. Ludwick hit just two homers in 140 plate appearances, with an OPS 30 percent below average. It was a small sample, but Ludwick lost nearly 30 feet of distance on his fly balls hit between 2012 (270) and 2013 (244).

Perhaps an off-season of rest and training will allow Ludwick to reach the seats with regularity again in 2014. But that's an awfully big if for a team already punting so much offensive value in center field.

Outside Help

The Reds have committed to Hamilton in center field, so Ludwick looks like the only one who might face competition for a starting spot. Internally, the club's options look bleak. Donald Lutz is a hulking lefty hitter who could platoon with Ludwick, though he didn't exactly excel at Double-A (.741 OPS) and got carved up in the majors (a 1-to-14 walk-to-strikeout ratio). Righty Chris Heisey has declined three years running at the plate. Prospects Yorman Rodriguez and Juan Duran are toosly and on the 40-man roster, but both are hackers who need upper-level ABs in the minors.

At this point, the free agent market for corner outfielders is Chris Sale thin. Nelson Cruz is still available, though the low-OBP slugger with durability concerns and limited range could turn into a handsomely paid Ludwick clone. Tyler Colvin and Laynce Nix are lefty power bats who could partner up with Ludwick, but both are coming off wretched seasons and make Hamilton look like an OBP juggernaut by comparison. Former Reds farmhand Chris Dickerson offers a better eye and some speed, but also questionable durability and contact skills. Grady Sizemore, the Mark Prior of position players, has reportedly recovered from microfracture surgery on his right knee. The last time he played? September 22, 2011.

On the trade front, LA's Andre Ethier still slugs against righties (.854 OPS last year), though he's owed at least $71.5 million through 2017 as he marches toward his mid-thirties. The Cubs' Nate Schierholtz (.799 OPS against right-handers), projected to make $4.4 million during his final year of salary arbitration, could be a more cost-efficient platoon partner.


Can Lefty-Killer Liriano Tame Cincinnati's Lineup?

The Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates, currently holding the National League's two Wild Card spots and still chasing the St. Louis Cardinals for NL Central supremacy, begin a pivotal series tonight at PNC Park. The Bucs' ace and the winter's biggest free agent bargain, Francisco Liriano, will square off against a Cincy lineup led by on-base machines Shin-Soo Choo and Joey Votto and slugger Jay Bruce.

The Reds' three key lefty bats could be in for a long night against Liriano, who is mowing down fellow southpaws like no other starting pitcher in major league history. He's holding them to a .319 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in 2013, lowest ever for a lefty pitcher facing at least 100 lefty batters in a season. The big league average in lefty-versus lefty situations is just .645. Tonight's game could come down to whether Choo, Votto and Bruce can lay off Liriano's slider.

No National League starter this side of Madison Bumgarner throws his slider as often as Liriano (36% overall), and he relies on that high-80s missile even more against lefties (42%). He locates his slider off the outside corner to left-handers, just close enough to the edges that hitters feel compelled to swing once Liriano has bullied them into a pitcher's count.

Pitch location of Liriano's slider vs. lefties, 2013

Lefty hitters can't resist those tantalizingly close sliders, chasing them out of the strike zone 43% of the time. Liriano's chase rate with his slider against lefties is seventh-highest among starters, comfortably topping the 36% average and beating the likes of Clayton Kershaw (41%), Derek Holland (37%) and Chris Sale (35%).

Lefty hitters' swing rate by pitch location vs. Liriano's slider, 2013

Thanks to such an expanded strike zone, Liriano has a .076 opponent slugging percentage when he unleashes a slider to a lefty batter. That's best in the bigs and over 200 points below the MLB lefty-on-lefty average (.285).

So, how do the Reds' left-handers match up against the game's ultimate lefty hit man? Votto and Bruce probably aren't sweating Liriano. Choo, by contrast, must be drenched.

Votto has handled same-handed pitching over the past three seasons, posting a .908 OPS in 573 plate appearances against lefties. In fact, no qualified lefty hitter has a higher OPS against lefty pitching over that time frame. He's nearly platoon-proof in part because his Gandhi-like discipline extends to those tempting lefty sliders. Votto has chased just 28% of the time since the start of the 2011 season. Votto's patient approach has helped him slug a respectable .364 versus lefty sliders.

Bruce hasn't been shut down by lefties, either (.770 OPS in 602 PA). While he's much more of a free swinger than Votto overall -- who isn't? -- Bruce has chased lefty sliders off the plate 29% of the time. He's slugging .327 versus lefty sliders from 2011-13.

And then there's Choo. Maybe he wears that batting helmet with double ear flaps because he's wistfully thinking about taking up switch-hitting: Choo has a .617 OPS versus same-handed pitching in 569 PA from '11 to '13. He also shows good discipline versus lefty sliders (29% chase rate), he just can't hit them (.138 slugging percentage). Might be a good night for Choo to come down with a sudden case of Liriano-itis.


How do pitchers do on the first batter of the game?

We often hear about getting to a pitcher early, but I want to look at the earliest of the early and see how pitchers have fared on the very first batter they faced in the 1st inning.

Up first

  • Qualified starters are hit at a .253 pace by the leadoff batter in the 1st inning, batters have a .311 OBP, slug .393, for a .704 OPS.
  • Overall, qualified starters are hit at a .249 pace by all the batters they face, batters have a .307 OBP, slug .390, for a .697 OPS.

No surprises there. We expect the leadoff batter to do better than at least three and maybe four members of a representative lineup, so we expect them to be better in all statistical categories, but understandably, not by an enormous amount.

Who does well?

You won't find anyone better this season than Bronson Arroyo, who has faced 22 leadoff batters and retired them all, striking out five, getting eight grounders and nine outs in the air. Just to let you know, Arroyo has a 2.84 ERA in 1st inning and a .220 BAA.

Next up, is Jordan Zimmermann. Leadoff batters are 1-for-22 against Jordan with four whiffs for an .045 BAA. The one hit occurred in his last outing on August 2 when he allowed a leadoff double to Rickie Weeks and Zimm stranded him. Overall in his 1st innings, Zimmermann has a 1.64 ERA and a .163 BAA.

The third of four starters who have allowed one hit or less to the leadoff batter is Jeremy Guthrie. Guthrie has faced 23 leadoff batters, walked four and allowed just one hit, a Matt Carpenter double on May 30. The Cards got to  Guthrie for two runs that night in the 1st, but Guthrie held them scoreless over the next five innings.

The final first batter star pitcher is the Mets phee-nom Matt Harvey. Harvey has allowed one hit and one walk to the 22 batters he's faced (.048), while striking out seven. The one hit was a Juan Pierre bunt single on June 2. 

First batter of the game strikeout leaders
  PA K
John Lackey (BOS) 20 9
Wade Miley (ARI) 23 7
Ryan Dempster (BOS) 22 7
Matt Harvey (NYM) 22 7
Mat Latos (CIN) 23 7
Felix Hernandez (SEA) 24 7
Edwin Jackson (CHC) 22 7
Clayton Kershaw (LAD) 24 7
A. J. Griffin (OAK) 23 7
Ubaldo Jimenez (CLE) 22 6

And the not so good...

I find this list fascinating because there is such a mix of successful and not so successful pitchers.

1st inning Leadoff Batter Struggles
James Shields (KC) 24 10 .455 2
Eric Stults (SD) 23 10 .455 1
Andy Pettitte (NYY) 20 10 .526 1
Shelby Miller (STL) 21 9 .529 4
Mat Latos (CIN) 23 9 .409 1
Lance Lynn (STL) 23 9 .391 0
Kyle Lohse (MIL) 23 9 .409 1
Felix Hernandez (SEA) 24 9 .375 0
Bud Norris (BAL) 24 9 .391 0
Anibal Sanchez (DET) 19 9 .563 3

My particular annoyance

I hate it when pitchers walk the first batter of the game. It irks me. Consequently, these guys annoy me.

Leaders in Leadoff Walks (Ugh!)
Tim Lincecum (SF) 22 6 5 .353 .500
Dillon Gee (NYM) 22 3 5 .176 .364
Stephen Strasburg (WSH) 23 2 4 .111 .304
Shelby Miller (STL) 21 9 4 .529 .619
Ricky Nolasco (LAD) 23 5 4 .263 .391
Jeremy Guthrie (KC) 23 1 4 .053 .217
Jeff Samardzija (CHC) 23 7 4 .368 .478

Finally, here are the seven starters who have allowed two homers to first batters they faced

1st inning leadoff gopher pitchers
Yu Darvish (TEX) 22 3 2 .158 .474
Kyle Kendrick (PHI) 23 4 2 .200 .600
Kevin Correia (MIN) 22 7 2 .368 .684
John Lackey (BOS) 20 5 2 .250 .550
Jeff Samardzija (CHC) 23 7 2 .368 .737
Gio Gonzalez (WSH) 23 7 2 .318 .682
CC Sabathia (NYY) 23 5 2 .238 .571

The best first inning leadoff batters

Here's a bonus for you:

Leadoff batters in the 1st inning
Shin-Soo Choo (CIN) 98 .353 .439 .671 1.109 30 5 7 15
Nate McLouth (BAL) 85 .342 .388 .468 .857 27 1 5 7
Eric Young Jr. (NYM) 71 .328 .423 .410 .832 20 0 9 6
Starling Marte (PIT) 102 .319 .373 .500 .873 30 1 5 27
Jacoby Ellsbury (BOS) 106 .313 .358 .495 .853 31 2 5 14
Desmond Jennings (TB) 76 .290 .355 .435 .790 20 2 7 16
Matt Carpenter (STL) 87 .288 .345 .413 .757 23 1 7 10
Michael Bourn (CLE) 81 .286 .321 .416 .737 22 2 4 16
Brett Gardner (NYY) 101 .272 .337 .380 .717 25 0 8 19
Austin Jackson (DET) 79 .271 .354 .343 .697 19 0 9 12
Norichika Aoki (MIL) 91 .263 .352 .313 .664 21 0 10 6
Coco Crisp (OAK) 89 .250 .326 .413 .738 20 3 9 10
Alejandro De Aza (CWS) 105 .213 .295 .372 .668 20 4 11 19
Denard Span (WSH) 92 .200 .261 .271 .531 17 0 7 19
Alex Gordon (KC) 83 .200 .277 .267 .544 15 1 6 17


After all is said and done, the best part of the leadoff experience is that the game has started.

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